Yesterday, when I was trying, for the third time, to finish Pray Away, Netflix’s new Ryan Murphy-produced documentary about “the dangers of conversion therapy,” I read the news that my former Baptist pastor — the man I handed my sister’s ring to as he preformed her wedding ceremony, the man who called me into his office repeatedly to suggest that I should just marry one of the guys my age at church, the man who stopped me often on our church campus to casually share slurs and misinformation about gay people — had joined Donald Trump’s post-presidency legal team. I know him as Pastor Doug, the man whose politics and faith(?) shaped my late teens and early adulthood. You know him as former Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the man whose antics during Trump’s impeachment had him constantly trending on Twitter. (Or as the man who siphoned off enough votes from Kelly Loeffler to pave the way for Georgia voters to elect Raphael Warnock in the run-off Senate election in 2021.)
I laughed when I saw the news because one of the reasons I was seething watching Pray Away is that it fails to even mention the conversion therapy to Donald Trump pipeline, and all the people, like Pastor Doug, who were validated by one to empower the other. It doesn’t even touch on the decision in the mid-90s, by pastors in the Southern Baptist convention, to create the “family values” sham that would scapegoat gay people to advance the power of the Republican party. In fact, the documentary doesn’t even really ask the former conversion therapy experts to grapple with the personal trauma they inflicted on countless gay people around the world. Pray Away settles instead for telling the stories of former prominent members of conversion therapy groups like Exodus International, the world’s most notorious “ex-gay” “ministry,” against maudlin music, while asking the audience for compassion for their suffering and self-loathing.
Which is fine, but it leaves a huge hole in the viewing experience because in an hour and forty minutes, Pray Away never answers the questions: Who is this documentary even for? What is it actually trying to accomplish? It is absolutely not for gays who grew up in evangelical communities and were completely victimized by just the existence of Exodus International’s “ex-gay” propaganda. Gays like me who were barricaded in the closet until their late 20s by the fear of losing everything: family, friends, faith, the foundations onto which we had built our entire young adult lives. But Pray Away is also not for the people who believe conversion therapy is soul-saving self-help psychology. Which, of course, brings me back to Donald Trump.
The message of conversion therapy will sound very familiar to you, regardless of your experience with Baptist teachings: It doesn’t matter how you feel, it doesn’t matter what science says, it doesn’t matter what popular culture is pushing, and it doesn’t even really matter what you read in the Bible. You have felt gay feelings as long as you can remember, and every new study that comes out says that lots of people are just born gay and also that being gay doesn’t harm your life in any way, and you know a lot of happy gay people who also seem like good people, and Paul says we’ll know by good people by their fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness), and we’ll know bad people by their fruit (hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, envy), and you know a lot more gay people with good fruit and a lot more straight people (Republicans!) with bad fruit. But none of that matters! You cannot trust your feelings, you cannot trust your mind, you cannot even trust your own eyes and ears. The only thing you can trust is your spiritual leaders, even if what they’re saying contradicts everything you’re seeing and hearing.
And that sounds familiar because we are living in an anti-reality hellscape where sickness and death have caused society as we’ve always known it to cease functioning, yet there are millions of people who still won’t adhere to basic scientific advice for the good of even themselves or their families. Because Donald Trump — the man evangelicals call their Spiritual Leader — told them not to. If literal death won’t cause these people to see reason, a Netflix documentary certainly won’t.
There is no emotional catharsis in Pray Away, no promised paths to victory for those who were abused by the teachings of the people featured in the documentary, no accountability, no looks at the exponential global repercussions of conversion therapy. It is, at best, picking at a scab — and, at worst, poking a dirty finger into a gaping wound. Which I suppose makes us all Thomas the Apostle, which makes a hilarious kind of sense. Christians call him Doubting Thomas; my lesbian friend Jeanna, who is writing the literal book on it, calls him Thomas the Gaslit.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” Thomas said.
Jesus said, “Stop doubting.”
I say, “Good for you, man.”